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The Relationship Between Theory and Research


Theories often play a crucial role in developing academic research. The importance of theories in research is especially profound in the conceptualization and guidance of research findings. Hendrix (2010) reports the lack of a common conception of theory among researchers. However, since doctoral research greatly relies on theoretical constructs, this paper analyzes several conceptions of theory, types of theory, and the contribution of research to theoretical development. Thus, this reflective treatise attempts to explicitly mirror the relationship between theory and research.

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Literature Review

Several scientific explanations have been explored by different authors. Jay (2002) states that Darwin has presented a set of scientific explanations to explain initial scientific evidence naturalists had gathered regarding evolution within the 19th century. The author asserts that Darwin’s contribution to science is widely used in natural sciences and highlights the nature of theory in most scientific disciplines. Therefore, Darwin’s explanation is widely used to explain most scientific theories because he demonstrated that guessing or formulating ideas do not inform theory-only scientific evidence does so (Jay, 2002).

Theories describe scientific phenomena, delimit scientific observations, generate new scientific ideas and frameworks or integrate new and existing theories (Gelso 2006). The descriptive function is centered on causal factors which explain why things happen the way they do. Besides, the delimiting function analyzes the boundaries of examining a specific phenomenon while the generative function analyzes existing research as a process to develop new knowledge of heuristic value. This latter function usually strives to inspire the development of new research. The integrative function of theories as a system, which provides a platform where new and old ideas merge to form new ones is vital in developing new research (Stam 2007).

Theories are often commonly confused with other concepts such as hypotheses, models, paradigms and concepts. The difference between theories and concepts is the definition of the concept as a phenomenon that scientific knowledge tries to explain. Theories are therefore antecedents of concepts because, through concepts, theories are developed (Gay 2011). Stated differently, Gay (2011) defines a concept as, “a mental image that summarizes a set of similar observations” (p. 26). Concepts are unique because of their associated values (through observation, it is easy to determine their values and associated forms in different variables).

Apart from the confusion with concepts, theories have also been confused with proposals. Thus, propositions explain the relationship between two concepts that show the relationship between propositions and concepts (Cozby 2009). The other relationship between propositions and hypotheses can be achieved by explaining the dependence of hypotheses on propositions. In other words, propositions are similar to hypotheses, except for the ability of hypotheses to be tested (Gelso 2006). Indeed, hypotheses normally predict a measurable value (using dependent and independent variables) and exceptionally, they present a null form (where there is no relationship between variables) which tests in research.

Gay (2011) presents the relationship between hypotheses and theories as an explanation for the way hypotheses bridge theories and data. However, drawing on the understanding of hypotheses, at one time, theories were mere hypotheses because they based their validity on tentative and testable observations (which are free from scientific evidence). However, Stam (2007) shows that when hypotheses receive a substantial level of support among the people and they provide a consistent way of explaining a given phenomenon, they are elevated to the level of a theory (but even at this point, they are not considered to be proven theories). Instead, these hypotheses provide the best scientific explanation regarding a specific phenomenon (using consistent integrative and predictive validity). For example, the global warming and evolution theories are peer-reviewed and tested using scientific methodologies. This is why they have garnered enough support in science (thereby graduating both theories above mere hypotheses to credible scientific theories). Therefore, as opposed to hypotheses, scientific research validates scientific concepts that were initially theorized.

Models, diagrams, and paradigms are also often confused with theories. However, Gay (2011) posits that they complement the nature of theories. Each theory should include an explanation for its building models and diagrams in order to minimize ambiguity as a result of a diagram being an explanation of such a theory. Thus, models and diagrams stand to explain the existing relationship between models of illustration and the theory itself (Gay 2011). Harlow (2009) explains that different phenomenal aspects of the social world find their roots in the paradigm. On the other hand, theories flesh out and explain these phenomenal aspects of the social world. In other words, theories flesh out paradigms. Kerlinger (1996) explains that systematic statements that explain social issues constitute theories. Indeed, theories play a pivotal role in bridging natural systems with human experience so that it is easier to understand what happens around us. Contrary to common usage, the nature of theory finds its support from scientific evidence, as opposed to individual interpretations or explanations (Harlow, 2009). Therefore, it is critical to understand the theory and its focus on research.

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As indicated above, these various literature provides a comprehensive analysis of the significance of models and diagrams in understanding the operation and conceptualization of theories in the last decades. This knowledge is critical in understanding the paradigm shift of methodology of studying theirs and testing the same.

Views Regarding What Constitutes a Theory

First View

According to Wacker (2008), a theory must have at least four basic criteria, which characterize the definition of concepts, the constriction of domains, the development of new relationships and the ability to predict new scientific relationships. Concerning conceptual definitions, Wacker (2008) explains the importance of theories to outline what constitutes their scope and what they specifically exclude. Using the same philosophy, Gay & Weaver (2011) explain that unique theories exclude many issues while common theories include many conceptual definitions.

The conceptual definitions used in a theory should mirror the definitions used in the same empirical studies. Therefore, there should not be any significant differences between the analytical methodologies and the operating methodologies in the empirical studies. From the same understanding, Wacker (2008) insists, “it does not seem logical for analytical methods to use conceptual definitions for their mathematical convenience if these definitions have no hope of ever being operational while measuring empirical studies” (p. 377).

According to Wacker’s second basic criterion for theories (domain limitations), theories should be mathematically and logically developed. Thus, the mathematical development may include the use of statistical inferences to support the theory’s structure. Reflectively, these theories should find their basis of empirical evidence, which may also base their structures on experimental designs that narrowly control domains (statistical sampling methodologies may also support experimental research). Finally, case studies constitute theoretical domain limitations. Comprehensively, the above attributes define the importance of theories to have a domain limitation since they are mainly useful in enabling theories’ statistical testing.

Reflectively, the need for theories to have a “relationship-building” attribute is critical in domain control. This attribute establishes if the variables have a conspicuous relationship. The importance of establishing this relationship is an important research fact for empirical researchers. Indeed, this process ensures that all the empirical models have a coherent understanding of “why” and “how” such variables are related. Besides, the need for theories to be predictive highlights the importance of testing the theories in the external and empirical worlds which encourages the need for theories to be predictive to ease personal support in the empirical review and comprehensive research in the current complex world.

Second View

Kaufman (1954) proposes a second view regarding the components of a theory. His view is the instrumental view because he highlights the importance of theories to have an instrumental conception. The instrumental conception view stipulates the importance of theories to provide a guide to action. This view supports the provision of tools and mechanisms for people to cope with everyday issues. Kaufman (1954) also explains the need for theories, which have an instrumental conception view to exhibit two components – ultimate ideals and intermediate ideals. In political philosophies, ultimate ideals may denote freedom, social cohesion, or growth but they may also conceal real demands (Grant, 2002).

Therefore, it is factual to conclude that the ultimate ideals often play an ornamental value in research and are very important in advancing an instrumental character to scientific theories. This is because the intermediate ideal informs policy recommendations (in political philosophies) to support a specific action. This aspect is often instrumental in action planning since it is always aligned towards proactive planning parameters.

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Third View

Same as opined by Sutton and Staw (1995), it is factual to assert that the main constituent of a theory is its ability to answer fundamental disciplinary questions. In this regard, Stam (2010) explains the importance of theories to demonstrate and disseminate causal relationships (and the order or timing of the events that cause this causal relationship). Therefore, it is critical to review theoretical requirements in supporting research in order to comprehensively provide an explanation for the existence of causal relationships in most disciplinary dilemmas that are brought about by divergent opinions and different research designs.

Comparison of the Three Views

Sutton and Staw’s view of theoretical compositions mirrors Wacker’s view of the same. Indeed, this paper shows that Wacker explains the need for theories to have a relationship-building attribute to explain the coherence of variables. Sutton and Staw (1995) also emphasize the need for theories to demonstrate causal relationships (through an explanation of the relationship between different variables). To this extent, Sutton and Staw’s view augur well with Wacker’s. However, based on the three views discussed above, Wacker’s view of theories exposes more detail because it is expansive in scope. Indeed, Wacker suggests the need for theories to demonstrate “conceptual definitions, domain limitations, relationship-building, and predictions” (p. 378).

In the third view (described above), Sutton and Staw (1995) only emphasize the need for theories to explain causal relationships. They do not divulge any other theoretical components. Under the second view, Grant (2002) only focuses on the importance of theories to have a meaning. In other words, she emphasizes the need for theories to demonstrate a guide to action. In this respect, Grant’s view is similar to the first and third views because Sutton & Staw (1995) and Wacker (2008) all advance the importance of theories to advance causal relationships as a guide to action. Notably, all the three views discussed above emphasize the importance of incorporating scientific research as a basis for comprehending theories. Thus, more emphasis than action guide stresses the need for theories to have a basis of comparison to empirical studies. Nonetheless, the three views discussed above highlight the reliance on scientific evidence and the incorporation of empirical evidence to support theories.

Relationship between Theory and Research

Harlow (2009) explains that the diversity witnessed in defining a theory also characterizes the diversity witnessed in explaining the relationship between theories and research. Despite this diversity, there is a wide consensus among researchers of the need for theories to form the main framework for scholarly research (Harlow, 2009). The main discussion arising in this analysis is the importance of contributing new knowledge to existing bodies of research. This statement births another discussion regarding what constitutes “contribution” to research but still, the contribution of theory to research highlights the relationship between both concepts. Many issues define this relationship. Some of them are:

Originality and Utility

The main idea surrounding the relationship between theory and research is based on the premise that quantitative and qualitative research always informs existing theories (albeit dimensionally). Ellis & Levy (2008) explain that the multidimensional way that theory contributes to research is hinged on originality (incremental or revelatory) and utility (scientific or practical). The contributions of research to theories on originality and utility levels explain the power of research to improve the explanatory power of theories. Through the increase of explanatory power, theories become highly relevant to the point that they can cause a paradigm shift (Ellis & Levy, 2008).

However, the original and utility contributions of research to theory occur incrementally (building upon previous facts). Despite the nature of theoretical contributions to research (originality or utility), the contribution of quantitative research to theoretical development is easily generalized because of the multidimensional hypothesis testing. Through these multidimensional hypothesis tests, theories and research develop stronger explanatory power and predictability (Ellis & Levy, 2008). Therefore, the contribution of research to theory testing is one-way research contributes to theory.

Qualitative Contribution to Research

The qualitative contribution to research is equally significant for the quantitative contribution to research. However, compared to the quantitative contribution to research, the qualitative contribution to research is narrow in scope. Its importance is also more profound when exploring difficult topics (normally, these difficult topics are closed to external observations) (Gay, 2011). Furthermore, complex topics (and other topics, which are difficult to quantify) easily merge with the qualitative contribution to research. Ellis & Levy (2008) explain that qualitative research is firmly grounded in social reality but some critics say that it is often idiographic.

Thus, it is factual to affirm that qualitative methods of research are essential in making fundamental development contributions to the field of social and behavioral domains that elucidate change. As a result, a researcher may be in a position to construct a relevant domain between outcomes and predictors of the design adopted.

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Best Practice

Kurt Lewin‘s (cited in Gay, 2011, p. 29) best assertion centers on his depiction that good theories are practical theories because they are defined by best practices. This assertion bases its validity on the fact that “good” theories base their structures on empirical research and experiences. This way, good theories depend on practical research (which forms the framework for developing best practices in theory development). In this regard, there is a conspicuous agreement among researchers of the importance of theories to not only advance the truth but also demonstrate a practical understanding (or usefulness) to scientific practice (Gay, 2011). Therefore, if theories develop without practical usefulness, they are insufficient. Gay (2011) explains this fact in another dimension and explains the importance of theories to “improve the current research practice of informed scholars” (p. 581). The contribution of best practice (by research studies to theories) also highlights an important function of theories (which is to expound on the practice and understanding of practitioners).

How the Instrumental View Adds to the Understanding of Political Theories

The instrumental view of theoretical construction stands in this section of the paper as an illustrative theory for improving the understanding of political theories. This view highlights an earlier section of this paper (“second view” of what constitutes a theory) and it plays an important role in political science because it supports the understanding of political theories. The instrumental view adds to the understanding of political theory because it charts the course for action in solving political issues.

Reflectively, the most celebrated theories in political science have included important information that was present at the time of formulating the theories. For example, Gay (2011) contends that “facts, inferences, natural laws, and appropriate well-tested hypotheses are all part of the construction of a strong political theory” (p. 30). In this regard, political theories differentiate themselves from other forms of intuition like beliefs and guesses. Indeed, it is undoubted that political theories develop from social frictions and empirical evidence gathered from the same. However, there has been an intense debate regarding what constitutes these theories. Some researchers claim that some of these theories merely base their structures on sheer rhetoric, while others insist that such theories propagate to support an existing power structure (Morgenthau, 2004). A different group of critics proposes that these theories advance an unknown eternal and objective order (Morgenthau, 2004). These views have questioned the credibility of political theories but the instrumental view expounds on the importance of using these views to serve an instrumental function. In this regard, the instrumental view adds to the understanding of the functions of political theories.

Controversies and Unanswered Questions Regarding Instrumentalism

As explained in this paper, instrumentalism focuses on presenting theories as a tool for understanding the environment. The instrumentalist view, therefore, focuses on how to analyze and predict the relationship between different social, political or economic issues as opposed to how these relationships manifest. Therefore, the objective of instrumentalism is not to explain why a phenomenon exists but rather, explain if associated results or observations fit the description of these phenomena. Despite the articulate explanation of how instrumentalism operates, there are some unanswered questions and controversies surrounding its application. For example, Charles Sanders Peirce (a renowned researcher who introduced the concept of pragmatism) criticized the instrumentalist view by explaining that the supposition of truth is the only way that scientific progress can be achieved (Stewart, 2001). Through the supposition of reality and truth, an explanation of reality and good theories manifest (Stewart, 2001).

This view contradicts the instrumentalist view because the instrumentalist view does not consider unobservable objects as having significant outcomes on empirical studies, while Pierce claims that they do (Stewart, 2001). In fact, Peirce adds that unobservable objects in science are testable in practice and therefore, theory developers should consider them. Karl Popper (another philosopher of science also disputes assertions made by proponents of the instrumentalist view because he claims that the instrumentalist view is too mechanical (Popper, 2003). Concerning his reservations about the instrumentalist view, Karl Popper insists that “Instrumentalism can be formulated as the thesis that scientific theories – the theories of the so-called pure sciences – are nothing but computational rules (or inference rules); of the same character, fundamentally, as the computation rules of the so-called applied sciences (one might even formulate it as the thesis that pure science is a misnomer, and that all science is applied). Now personal reply to instrumentalism consists in showing that there are profound differences between pure theories and technological computation rules and that instrumentalism can give a perfect description of these rules but is unable to account for the difference between them and the theories” (Popper, 2003, p. 56).

Moreover, Popper (2003) explains that another controversy surrounding instrumentalism is the concept’s failure to evaluate theories. Instead, instrumentalism implies the need for theories to receive the same treatment as models (where the information provides observable predictions). Through this representation, there is a need to explain the difference between theories and observations because instrumentalism confuses the two concepts. Popper (2003) elaborates that this confusion also stretches to the mix between non-theoretical terms and observable terms, plus the mix between non-observable terms and theoretical terms. Instrumentalism, therefore, contends that there is no difference between theoretical and semantic issues because it suggests, people can be able to know anything only if they are able to understand it. This view is highly contentious.


Understanding the nature and type of a theory is the first step to ensure the right modeling of future research processes. For researchers, theories stand as the first line of understanding scientific research. Therefore, to test and predict different variables of the research process, consultations about existing theories need to occur. Through the confirmation and understanding of these variables, the development of new theories is achievable and an improvement of the scientific practice of the related subject is equally achievable. Through this understanding, it is always important to establish how our research influences theory and justifies the same contribution.


After weighing the findings of this paper, it is apparent that theories provide a logical explanation of how things work. Its contribution to practice is not only important for knowledge development but also in the development of scientific solutions regarding different scientific phenomena. Specifically, the concept of domain and research design should be aligned to properly explain theories that are intrinsic to diagrams and models to further ascertain their relevance. Balancing the mix between non-observable terms and theoretical terms is critical in the instrumentalism of research that contends the difference between theoretical and semantic issues in a comprehensive review of the research domain. Through the supposition of reality and truth, an explanation of reality and good theories manifest the maturity and quantifiable research that are void of shear rhetoric informed by over assumptions. Thus, the findings of this paper demonstrate the importance of theoretical contributions to research processes despite the complexities that occur from the same process.


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